Paula Rego, whose art captured ‘the beautiful grotesque’, dies aged 87

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Drawing on myths, folktales and her own upbringing under a dictatorship in Portugal, artist Paula Rego created paintings and drawings that were mischievous, menacing and psychologically complex. They had, she said, a sense of “the beautiful grotesque” and explored issues of female agency and identity through their disturbing depictions of Disney-esque animals and monumental women.

For her ‘Dog Women’ series in the 1990s, she had lonely women pose as animals – squatting, reclining, howling on all fours. The pictures were tinged with violence and eroticism, as in other works in which she showed a woman cutting off a monkey’s tail with oversized scissors, an “angel” with a sponge in one hand and a sword in the other, and a young woman polishing her father’s knee-high police boots.

As Ms. Rego put it, art was a way to work through fear and trauma, to calm and comfort, but also to erase, attack, scratch and destroy. “In my photos, I could do anything,” she said in the 2017 documentary “Paula Rego: Secrets & Stories,” directed by her son Nick Willing. “Work is the most important thing in life – it is for me.”

Mrs. Rego was 87 when she died on June 8 at her home in north London, not far from the converted stretcher factory she used as a studio. The Victoria Miro Gallery, which represents her, announced her death, but did not name a specific cause.

Although she grew up on the Portuguese coast, Ms Rego spent much of her career in Britain, where she became known as one of the country’s most renowned and inventive artists. Queen Elizabeth II named her Dame Commander in 2010, one of the country’s highest honors, and the Tate Britain staged a comprehensive retrospective of her work last year.

“She is an uncompromising artist with an extraordinary imagination and has revolutionized the way women are represented,” the museum said at the time. Some of her works can be seen at the Venice Biennale, one of the art world’s most emblematic events.

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For years, however, Ms Rego was largely overlooked and her career began in the 1950s as a figurative artist at a time when abstraction was in vogue. She was a rare woman on the London scene – she didn’t worry about the men, she said, “because you could seduce them if you wanted” – and felt disconnected from existing art movements. Her first solo exhibition, in Lisbon in 1965, shocked some critics with her colorful paintings and collages, which combined newspaper and magazine clippings with her own semi-abstract drawings.

“My inspiration,” she told an interviewer at the time, “comes from things that have little to do with painting: caricatures, daily news, things happening in the street, proverbs, children’s stories, children’s games, nursery rhymes and dances, nightmares, desires, fears. .”

Many of her works are inspired by literature or nursery rhymes, reusing literary or folk characters such as the three blind mice, Jane Eyre and Snow White. Animals were often replaced by humans, as in her painting Pregnant Rabbit Telling Her Parents, which shows a rabbit bringing unexpected news to her mother, a cat, and father, a cigar-smoking dog.

Other works were more explicitly political, inspired by her childhood under Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, whom she portrayed in such paintings as “Salazar Vomiting the Homeland” (1960) and “The Imposter” (1964), which depicted him as an octopus. .

Ms. Rego tackled feminist issues, including female genital mutilation and abortion rights, which inspired some of her best-known works, a series of pastels depicting tortured but rebellious young women just before or after the procedure. A woman was depicted with her feet on folding chairs, which served as makeshift stirrups; others were shown curled up on a bed or lying on the floor.

The series of abortions began as a form of protest, following the defeat of a referendum in 1998 that allegedly decriminalized the procedure in Portugal. It was also informed by personal experience: As a teenager, Ms. Rego had a “back street” abortion so she could continue her art studies in London, rather than being forced to return to her parents in Portugal.

She said she wanted her work to “reveal the fear, pain and danger of illegal abortion that desperate women have always resorted to.”

When another abortion vote was held in Portugal in 2007, many of her photos were published in national newspapers, helping to shape the debate over access to the procedure. The referendum was passed, legalizing abortion in the country, and former Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio cited “the very harsh brutality of her photos” as “an influence” on the outcome.

Maria Paula Figuiroa Rego was born in Lisbon on January 26, 1935. The following year, her parents moved to England for her father’s job as an electrical engineer. Ms. Rego was sent to her grandmother, who lived in the fishing village of Ericeira and introduced the young girl to Portuguese folklore.

The stories became a kind of balm, a source of comfort in a childhood shaped by fear and isolation. “My mother told me I was afraid of flying, but I remember being afraid of everything,” Ms Rego told biographer John McEwen. “I was even afraid of other children. I just couldn’t bear to be kicked out. Oh god it was awful. It was just terror, terror.”

Art – “the pencil that scratches the paper and makes something” – also offered an escape. Ms Rego was encouraged by a teacher at the British International School she attended near Lisbon, and went on to graduate school in England before enrolling in the Slade School of Fine Art, part of University College London, in 1952.

There she met painter Victor Willing, a glamorous fellow student who became famous for his nude studies. He was married at the time, but they began an affair and, after his divorce, they married in 1959, deepening a tumultuous relationship that included infidelity on both sides.

At that time, “women were there to be partners and supporters for their artist husbands. I wasn’t one of them,” she told the BBC last year. “I wanted to be with the big boys’ club, with the great painters I admired. Just like I’d wanted to be Robin Hood and not Maid Marian.”

Mrs. Rego and her husband split their time between Britain and Portugal before finally settling in London in the mid-1970s. In the following decade she and her work began to attract a wide audience in Britain, where AIR Gallery staged its first major solo exhibition in London and she was appointed associate artist with the National Gallery, who put a number of her pieces on its permanent added exhibition. collection.

Much of that period was spent caring for her husband, who had multiple sclerosis and died in 1988, the same year that Ms. Rego painted ‘The Family’, a tender but slightly disturbing image of a woman and her daughters caring for her ailing husband. helping him with his clothes while sitting stiff on a bed.

In addition to her son Nick, there are two daughters, Cas and Victoria Willing, and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Ms Rego has remained prolific in recent years, often describing art as a form of therapy, a way of ‘putting a face on fear’, as she put it in a 2016 interview with the Telegraph. She had mixed success (“it’s ridiculous to be so old and so scared”), but said she still calmed down by turning to stories, whether in the form of childhood memories or folktales and legends.

“I pick a story,” she added, “so I can use it to paint my own life.”

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